IT IS possible to survive and thrive as a misfit without forcing yourself into a round corporate hole. Here’s how to embrace your weird self and navigate the workplace successfully.
A few years ago, I reached a kind of pinnacle of my career. I had an impressive job title, was fresh off the successful sale of a company I had helped build and was frequently asked to speak about my experience. By most objective measures of success, I had made it.
But unlike how I had imagined success would make me feel – confident, polished, poised – I found it had not changed me. I remained the same misfit I had always been: emotionally clumsy, physically wobbly, awkward, anxious and still not entirely comfortable in my surroundings.
But that didn’t mean I was bad at my job. On the contrary, I was good at it. So, I set out on a mission to help freaks like me stop trying to fit their square pegness into round corporate holes and to recognise that they could make it as they are.
Conventional career advice overwhelmingly teaches that office-politicking extroverts are best set up for success. As a result, if you’re offbeat, you’ve probably felt that the parts of your personality that seem out of sync are weaknesses you need to overcome.
But this logic is flawed and untrue. What companies really need are passionate, original thinkers. Businesses need “disruptors”, Silicon Valley’s favourite word, and they need employees who are too odd to understand the ways things are “supposed to work”.
Fellow misfits, do not fear: You do not have to change your fundamental being to thrive in your career. When in doubt, remember the following:
- Your unique point of view is a strength, not a weakness;
- Your sensitivity is what allows you to read a room and, ostensibly, play to it;
- Your emotional intensity/curmudgeonly nature/crippling social anxiety/outsider status means you’re not constantly trying to curry favour with an uninspiring boss or your phoney co-workers.
Having the courage to celebrate your differences and communicate your ideas will help you succeed in just about any vocation. So keep at it. Push yourself to share ideas or fixes to long-standing problems. Propose your big, wild dream project. Embrace your weird personality– it is more valuable than you think.
Most of us have heard the phrase “fake it till you make it”. This expression has taken on new meaning in an age of social media when our feeds overflow with carefully curated lives and accomplishments. We’re all faking it to make it, although it’s not always quite clear what “it” is.
The impulse to want to fake it (to be more poised, polished or more like what you perceive all those #bosses on Instagram to be) is powerful, especially if you’ve spent a lifetime feeling odd.
But pretending to be something you’re not in a new job, faking skills or contorting yourself to gain recognition, is a short-sighted strategy with little return. Your best work will come when you can be open, accountable, curious and fully who you are, not by performing some outsize version of who you think you should be.
Not sure where to begin? Try the following:
- Stop with the “whens” and “thens”. Instead, focus on the value and strengths you bring in this moment, even with all of your perceived flaws;
- Identify what it is about work that makes you feel anxious. Learn to push through this anxiety instead of running away from it;
- Pinpoint the triggers that make you feel ashamed or insecure, then start the process of overcoming them. Keeping a journal, therapy, confiding in friends are all potential ways to cope.
Many of us have been told that confidence is a fixed state, once we have it, it doesn’t go away. But confidence is actually fleeting. One day you will be swaggering around a conference room fired up to give a presentation, but the next you’ll be eating your feelings in the office kitchen paralysed by a full panic. Most people – misfits or not – experience this sort of vacillation. We think confidence is required to be successful. But instead of focusing on confidence, set your mind to developing your competence and becoming better at what you do.
When there’s a big presentation or a proposal you need to put together, instead of worrying that you’re not confident enough to pull it off, pour yourself into the work itself. Become honest about what you still need to learn and work towards developing the daily discipline it takes to improve. Becoming really good at what you do will help calm your insecurity and give you a sturdier foundation to help you go after what you want.
For many of us, the biggest obstacle in the way of our success is the noise we create in our own heads: psyching ourselves out, telling ourselves we can’t do it, distracting ourselves with problems that don’t necessarily exist outside our minds. Learning to control your overthinking is critical.
Remember that what we perceive as failure is often an opportunity. When in doubt, quote Oprah: “There is no such thing as failure; failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.” So, you hate networking, small talk gives you hives and you find yourself in a state of panic over professional events. All of this may make you feel like you’re alone at work. You aren’t. You just haven’t identified your people yet.
Finding a few smart, supportive people who understand you won’t happen overnight. But the awkward moments you experience regularly can be an opening for a conversation with someone who also struggles with feeling like they don’t fit the mould. Look for these moments of rapport and seek out people at work who behave in a way you admire.
- Focus on building genuine relationships, not transactional relationships based on what other people can do for you;
- Ask questions that have nothing to do with work;
- Give genuine compliments;
- Be a person your new colleague-friends can trust;
- Actively support your co-workers, back up their ideas. Offer help when you can and celebrate their successes;
- Set boundaries and stick to them. You are not obliged to socialise with co-workers outside the office if you don’t want to nor do you have to take on their personal problems to be a good colleague.
Over time you will find your place in the office ecosystem – not despite being a misfit, but because of it.
This article was first published in The New York Times.